The cover of Time magazine’s April 3, 2006 issue, featuring a “special report” on global warming, tells readers to “be very worried” about climate change.
Time‘s special report, however, is not a report but a diatribe–one-sided advocacy from start to finish. Scientists who take a non-alarmist view of global warming do not get a word in edgewise. Neither do economists who view the costs of regulatory climate policies as greatly out of proportion to any potential benefits.
This article presents a running commentary on Time‘s special report. It reproduces much of the article word-for-word in separate segments, and comments on each segment in turn.
Time: No one can say exactly what it looks like when a planet takes ill, but it probably looks a lot like Earth.
Comment: A sick planet? Many key economic, health, and environmental indicators show dramatic improvement in the past few decades. World GDP has more than doubled since 1970. In 2000, global per-capita food production was 23 percent higher than in 1961, and food cost only about one-third as much.
In the United States, emissions of the six principal air pollutants fell dramatically during three-plus decades of rapid growth in GDP, vehicle miles traveled, energy consumption, and population. The continuing air quality improvement is virtually unstoppable.
Time: Disasters have always been with us and surely always will be. But when they hit this hard and come this fast–when the emergency becomes commonplace–something has gone grievously wrong. That something is global warming.
Comment: Disasters have always hit hard and frequently. The difference is not in the state of the climate but in our perceptions, which are shaped by the media’s nonstop coverage of natural disasters all over the world. Time implies the destruction wrought by Katrina was somehow caused by global warming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), on the other hand, attributes the recent upsurge in Atlantic basin hurricane activity to a natural multi-decadal cycle.
Time: From heat waves to storms to floods to fires to massive glacial melts, the global climate seems to be crashing around us. Scientists have been calling this shot for decades. This is precisely what they have been warning would happen if we continued pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Comment: Journalistic standards are “crashing around us” when Time can “report” on climate in such apocalyptic terms.
Since 1976, the world has warmed at a remarkably constant and non-alarming rate of 0.17 degrees C per decade. Time does not explain–because no one can–how so modest a warming could produce catastrophic impacts in 50 to 100 years, much less over the course of a year or two.
Moreover, researchers at Duke University estimate “the sun contributed to 45-50 percent of the 1900-2000 global warming and 25-35 percent of the 1980-2000 global warming.”
Time: In the past five years or so, the serious debate has quietly ended. Global warming, even most skeptics have concluded, is the real deal, and human activity has been causing it.
Comment: That greenhouse gas emissions add heat energy to the climate system and are bound to warm the planet to some extent has never been in doubt. The real question is how much the climate will warm, how fast, and with what effects. That remains the subject of intense inquiry and debate.
The main incontrovertible effect of global warming to date has been that it has made the world’s most severely cold regions slightly less lethal to people and other living things.
Time: By one recent measure, several Greenland ice sheets have doubled their rate of slide, and just last week the journal Science published a study suggesting that by the end of the century, the world could be locked in to an eventual rise in sea levels of as much as 20 ft. Nature, it seems, has finally got a bellyful of us.
Comment: Time engages in cherry-picking. The report ignores another paper in Science, by Ola Johannessen of the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center in Bergen, Norway, who found ice is accumulating on Greenland’s inland glaciers. The two studies combined argue against alarm.
Even if we ignore that, however, at the 2005 rate the Greenland ice melt will contribute less than one inch to sea level rise during the entire twenty-first century.
Time: “Things are happening a lot faster than anyone predicted,” says Bill Chameides, chief scientist for the advocacy group Environmental Defense and a former professor of atmospheric chemistry. “The last 12 months have been alarming.”
Comment: Hold the presses: Environmental Defense is very worried about global warming!
Time: The naysayers–many of whom were on the payroll of energy companies–have become an increasingly marginalized breed.
Comment: The so-called naysayers–more accurately, non-alarmists–include numerous respected scientists, several dozen of whom recently argued in a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, “If, back in the mid-1990s, we knew what we know today about climate, Kyoto would almost certainly not exist, because we would have concluded it was not necessary.”
More importantly, if Time is going to discuss economic motives, it should do so across the board, not selectively to discredit one side. The perception that global warming is something to be “very worried” about is the sine qua non of billions of dollars in annual government contracts to researchers and universities, and millions of dollars in annual direct mail contributions to eco-activist groups. “News” magazines such as Time profit greatly by spreading alarm, because scary stories and scarier covers sell copy.
In addition, many companies hope to profit from the regulatory constraints of a carbon-rationed economy. Carbon controls boost the market shares of companies that produce “alternative fuels,” generate electricity from low- and non-carbon fuels, or manufacture high-end (ultra-energy-efficient) appliances.
There are special interests on both sides of the climate policy debate, even as there are objective scientists and idealists on both sides. Time presents a childish caricature, not balanced news for adults.
Time: As a tiny component of our atmosphere, carbon dioxide helped warm the Earth to comfort levels we are all used to. But too much of it does an awful lot of damage. During the last ice age, the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration was just 180 p.p.m. [parts per million], putting Earth into a deep freeze. After the glaciers retreated but before the dawn of the modern era, the total had risen to a comfortable 280 p.p.m.
Comment: Time claims that falling CO2 levels initiated the last glaciation, and implies that rising CO2 levels ended it. On the contrary, changes in global temperature preceded changes in the air’s CO2 content. Time has the causality backwards.
Time: In just the past century and a half, we have pushed the level to 381 ppm, and we’re feeling the effects. Of the 20 hottest years on record, 19 occurred in the 1980s or later. According to NASA scientists, 2005 was one of the hottest years in more than a century.
Comment: The “record” to which Time refers is the instrumental record, which only goes back, in the United States, to about 1880. In the late nineteenth century, the world began to emerge from a relatively cold period known as the Little Ice Age. Scientific evidence suggests as much as 50 percent of the warming since then may be due to solar variability.
The most thorough survey of the literature found that, during the Medieval Warm Period, “it was possible to identify a 50-year period in which temperatures were warmer than any 50-year period in the 20th century in most of the locations of climate proxies.”
Data from ice cores also indicate the preceding four interglacial periods (the periods between glaciations) were warmer than the one in which we are now living. For example, summertime temperatures in the Canadian Arctic were 5-10 degrees C higher during the previous interglacial than they are today. How on Earth did the planet survive those traumas?
Consider also that even though 2005 was the hottest year in the instrumental record, it falls exactly on the non-alarming 0.17 degrees C per decade trend-line of the past 30 years.
Time: It’s at the North and South poles that those steam bath conditions are felt particularly acutely, with glaciers and ice caps crumbling to slush.
Comment: Large areas of Antarctica cooled during the late twentieth century. Various temperature records indicate that in the 1930s and 1940s, prior to the major buildup of greenhouse gases, Arctic temperatures equaled or exceeded those of the late twentieth century. There is also evidence that about 5,000 years ago, the western Arctic sea surface temperature in August was 3 to 7 degrees C warmer than it is today.
Time: By some estimates, the entire Greenland ice sheet would be enough to raise global sea levels 23 ft., swallowing up large parts of coastal Florida and most of Bangladesh. The Antarctic holds enough ice to raise sea levels more than 215 ft.
Comment: While Antarctica may hold the equivalent of 215 ft. of sea water, the pertinent question is how much sea level rise is likely to occur in the policy-relevant future. Satellite altimetry measurements of ice mass changes in Greenland, East Antarctica, and West Antarctica during 1992-2002 found a combined sea-level-equivalent ice-loss rate of 0.005 millimeters per year. At that rate, observes CO2Science.org, “it would take a full millennium to raise global sea level by just 5 cm, and it would take fully 20,000 years to raise it a single meter.”
Time: One of the reasons the loss of the planet’s ice cover is accelerating is that as the poles’ bright white surface shrinks, it changes the relationship of Earth and the sun. Polar ice is so reflective that 90% of the sunlight that strikes it simply bounces back into space, taking much of its energy with it. Ocean water does just the opposite. … That is what scientists call a feedback loop, and it’s a nasty one.
Comment: Time implies that any change in Arctic ice cover and the region’s reflectivity can only lead to further changes of the same kind. Climate history suggests otherwise. For centuries, Arctic ice cover has alternately expanded and contracted along with shifts in the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation, and the amplification effects have not disrupted or suspended the underlying cycle.
Time: The Gulf Stream, carrying warmth up from the tropics, is what keeps Europe relatively mild. Whenever Europe is cut off from the Gulf Stream, temperatures plummet. At the end of the last ice age, the warm current was temporarily blocked, and temperatures in Europe fell as much as 10ºF, locking the continent in glaciers.
Comment: A massive infusion of fresh water may have disrupted the Gulf Stream and caused a regional cooling in Europe 8,200 years ago when a huge ice dam burst and allowed lakes Agassiz and Ojibway to drain swiftly into the Hudson Strait to the Labrador Sea, but we don’t know whether that really happened. Plus, there are no comparable fresh water bodies that could pour into the ocean at a similar rate today.
Speculation that global warming could once again shut down the Gulf Stream has no scientific merit. The Gulf Stream is energized primarily by the Earth’s spin and secondarily by the lunar tides, not salinity levels in the oceans. This means, as MIT atmospheric physicist Karl Wunsch put it, the Gulf Stream is safe as long as the Earth turns and the wind blows.
Time: With habitats crashing, animals that live there are succumbing too. … Last year, researchers in Costa Rica announced that two-thirds of 110 species of harlequin frogs have vanished in the past 30 years, with the severity of each season’s die-off following in lockstep with the severity of that year’s warming.
Comment: Contrary to the impression Time conveys, the frogs are not perishing from heat. Annual Costa Rican temperatures have remained remarkably flat during 1979 to 2005. Rather, the frogs are dying from a fungal infection carried by a class of organisms known as chytrids.
Time argues global warming is increasing cloud cover, which limits the frogs’ exposure to sunlight–a natural disinfectant that “can rid the frogs of this fungus.” However, there has been no observed change in Central American cloud cover during between 1984 and 2004.
So what is causing the frogs to perish in Costa Rica? “According to the journal Diversity and Distribution, the chytrid fungus was most likely introduced by humans, possibly by ecotourists and/or field researchers,” wrote University of Virginia climatologist Patrick Michaels in a January 11 story in World Climate Report.
Time: And with sea ice vanishing, polar bears–prodigious swimmers but not inexhaustible ones–are starting to turn up drowned.
Comment: There is no evidence that polar bears are being harmed by global warming. As Michaels notes in his book Meltdown (pp. 95-96), polar bear populations are increasing in Arctic areas where it is warming, and declining in areas where it is cooling.
Meltdown of Journalistic Ethics
Time‘s “special report” on global warming flouts elementary canons of journalistic ethics. It cites only experts whose opinions agree with its predetermined conclusions, support its political agenda, or both. The report never considers a single objection to any of its opinions or conclusions.
Time imputes base economic motives to scientists who are not “very worried” about global warming, while taking at face value the self-advertised bona fides of those whose research grants, direct mail contributions, or hoped-for regulatory rents depend entirely on their success in scaring people green.
Whatever science may discover about climate change in the future, this much is clear: Global warming politics have produced a meltdown of journalistic standards at Time magazine.
Marlo Lewis ([email protected]) is a senior fellow, specializing in global warming and energy policy, at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This article is an edited version of a critique published at http://www.cei.org/gencon/030,05288.cfm. Reprinted with permission.
For more information …
“NOAA Attributes Recent Increase in Hurricane Activity to Naturally Occurring Multi-Decadal Climate Variability,” NOAA Magazine, November 29, 2005, http://www.magazine.noaa.gov/stories/mag184.htm.
“Sun’s Direct Role in Global Warming May Be Underestimated, Duke Physicists Report,” September 30, 2005, http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/2005/09/sunwarm.html.
“Recent Ice Sheet Growth in the Interior of Greenland,” Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center, http://www.nersc.no/index2.php?display=moreinfo&news_id=151&displayMore=1
“Kyoto is pointless, say 60 leading scientists,” London Telegraph, April 11, 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/connected/main.jhtml?xml=/connected/2006/04/11/ecnkyoto11.xml&sSheet=/connected/2006/04/11/ixconn.html
“Hot Tip: Post Misses the Point!” World Climate Report, January 31, 2006, http://www.worldclimatereport.com/index.php/2006/01/31/hot-tip-post-misses-the-point/
“Gulf Stream safe if wind blows and Earth turns,” http://www.nature.com/news/2004/040405/full/428601c.html
“Jumping to Conclusions: Frogs, Global Warming and Nature (Revised),” World Climate Report, January 11, 2006, http://www.worldclimatereport.com/index.php/2006/01/11/jumping-to-conclusions-frogs-global-warming-and-nature
Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media, Cato Institute; September, 2004; 271 pgs., $24.95, available through Amazon.com.